Ambling through Amityville

I may be a week too late for Friday the 13th, but I just finished rereading The Amityville Horror.  One of my current projects required my paying close attention to what was and was not claimed, and although it doesn’t count towards my Goodreads goal, I just had to do it.  I noticed, as also occurred to me when rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist earlier, that the second time through raises more questions than the first.  The book has been demoted from nonfiction to novel over the years, but it seems pretty clear that Jay Anson believed it to be based on actual events.  He could’ve been wrong, of course, but with a long list of documentary writing credits to his name one does have to wonder.  Anson died just a year after the film came out.

When the movie was released I was still in high school and what everyone was saying about how scary it was kept me out of theaters.  (That, and lack of funds.)  It’s hard to imagine now, but there weren’t even VHS options in those days, especially for those of humble circumstances.  As a result, I was well into adulthood before I saw the cinematic version.  Reading the book, however, is an attempt to pry open the question of what might’ve happened at one of the most famous “haunted houses” this side of the Atlantic.  I’d just read a headline that the house had been sold again, and such was the impact of this story that a simple property transaction is now considered news in some circles.

Controversy permeates this tale.  I suspect that’s because it made a lot of money.  The search for the truth is often compromised by lucre—just look at the White House and try to disagree.  The usual rendering is that the Lutz family, in financial trouble, concocted a story that would bring in big bucks.  Such accusations came, of course, once the story did indeed prove valuable.  The second highest grossing film of 1979, The Amityville Horror held records for the highest grossing independent film for a decade.  Add to that the estimated book sales of 10 million copies and you have a nice retirement account laid up.  Those levels of remuneration are enough to corrupt any narrative.  Still, it’s clear that many people wonder what really went on at the house on Ocean Avenue.  I sat down with the book again and I have to admit that I’m no wiser on the question for having read it again.

Reading Railroad

Rereading books takes time.  When I was a professor my reading time was largely limited to the summer and winter breaks.  Those who haven’t experienced the academic lifestyle firsthand may not realize just how incredibly busy you are during term time.  Class prep, grading, delivering lectures, leading seminars, committee meetings, office hours—it really is much more than a nine-to-five job.  Time to sit down and read through books is limited, and since those books are heady, academic tomes, they take considerable time.  (I’m reading an academic book at the moment and I can only get through a finger-full of pages at a sitting.)  All of this means I’m generally reluctant to reread books.  Not that I’m a traditional academic anymore, but because I have a huge and growing stack of books I haven’t read yet.

Nevertheless, a project on which I’m working required rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist.  I read this about two years ago, while commuting.  The thing about reading on a bus is that the quality of reading time is strained.  Recall isn’t the same as when you’re in a comfy, stationary chair, and no stranger’s head is lopping onto your shoulder as they doze.  (Yes, that happens, and frequently for those of us on the first bus of the day.)  In any case, my copy of this book doesn’t have an index and I couldn’t remember if some specific instances were discussed.  The only thing for it, then, was to read it again.  My second reading was done with more skepticism than I could conjure on a bus ride, but still my original sense remains: we willfully cut out much of human experience if we stop our ears completely.  At least in principle.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were self-taught ghost-hunters.  More often than not, their cases turned into what they believed were demonic cases.  Since academics tend not to publish much about such things, the self-taught are pretty much free to declare themselves experts—just switch on reality TV and check me on this.  Experts are those with experience who are willing to share it.  The other day I met someone who, like me, used to live the commuting life.  We both agreed that telecommuting was a more authentic way to exist—your otherwise mandated three or four daily hours traveling can be more sanely used at home.  Still, we had to agree, bus time could be used for activities like reading, and once you stop commuting you have to carve time out for it.  In such a situation rereading a book is at times necessary.  When I was a professor, I reread frequently.  But then, it was mostly articles or books that I wouldn’t take on in their entirety.  In the reading life there’s never enough time.

Devil or Con?

You can’t believe everything you read.  That’s one of the first tenets of critical thinking.  This whole process is about how to get to the truth, and in a materialistic world that truth can’t involve anything supernatural.  These were my thoughts upon finishing Gerald Brittle’s The Devil in Connecticut.  Controversy accompanied Ed and Lorraine Warren’s investigations and some of the people involved in these cases have later claimed the extraordinary events didn’t happen.  Others claim that the Warrens offered them to make lots of money by selling their stories.  The effect of reading a book like this is a blend of skepticism and wonder.  Among their fans the Warrens are held in the highest regard.  Anyone who begins to look into their work critically ends up frustrated.

So when I put this potboiler down—it is a compelling read—I went to the internet to find out more.  Then I realized what I was doing.  Using the internet?  To find the truth?  It’s a vast storehouse of opinion, to be sure, but what with fake news and alternative facts who knows what to believe anymore?  I found websites debunking the whole case as a hoax.  Others, naturally, claim the events really happened.  Both kinds of web pages have the backing of someone in the family involved.  It’s a pattern that follows the Warrens’ work.  In one of the many books I’ve read about them they claim to have ten books.  If my math is right this was number ten.  Even that remains open to doubt.

The word “hoax” seems a bit overblown.  Dysfunctional, maybe, but hoax?  Reading Brittle’s account it’s clear there were some issues in this family.  Having grown up in a working class setting, I’m aware such scenarios are extremely common.  Accusations were made that this was an attempt to spin gold from straw.  The nearly constant stress of blue collar families makes that seem less far-fetched than a stereotypical devil showing up in a modern house because a satanic rock band placed a curse on the family.  Lawsuits—the most avaricious of means for determining facts—apparently prevented a movie deal and have even made this book a collector’s item.  Somebody, it seems, is making money off the story.  As after reading the other nine books, the truly curious are left wondering.  My skepticism kicked in early on, but then again, I’ve always liked a good story. 

Average Reality

One of the stranger dynamics of higher education is its unquestioning acceptance of a one-size-fits-all methodology. Don’t get me wrong—the empirical method works. The only real problem with it is that not all phenomena in the universe cooperate with human observation. It’s something I call the problem of occasional phenomena. Perhaps because of the rancid taste left in scientific mouths by lingering creationism, anything that isn’t slow and regular enough to be directly or theoretically observed simply can’t fit in this old world. The weird, the anomalous, the strange—these open the door to possible spirits and spirits have no way of being measured. At least not yet. The most convenient way to deal with them is to call them superstition and end the discussion right there.

The larger problem is that people see things. Unless said people are scientists, they are considered amateur observers, liable to mistake what they see. The classic example of this is ghosts. From the beginning of recorded history people have claimed to see them, or hear things go bump in the night. Some of the first modern people to make a profession out of exploring such things were Ed and Lorraine Warren. Unfortunately, they didn’t write books about their experiences. Largely because of movies made about some of their high profile cases, there has been a resurgence of interest in the couple and the books originally published by other presses, such as Prentice Hall and St. Martin’s, have been reissued by Graymalkin Media. These are co-written tomes of uneven quality. They’re also like candy—once you start on them it’s hard to stop. Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist is one such book. More than others in the collection that I’ve read, it concentrates on a single phenomenon that overlaps with the world of religion—demons. Unlike trained religion scholars, however, the Warrens aren’t shy about declaring what demons are (fallen angels) and how they differ from devils (it’s all about rank).

What makes these books so interesting is the dispassionate description of the cases the Warrens investigated. Unless they are pathological in their connection to telling untruths, there’s some very odd stuff that goes on out there. Although they declare once in a while that other religions and their practitioners can also deal with demons, there’s a simple kind of black-and-white view of morality that fits what you might have learned in Sunday School. One of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that most academics don’t take an academic interest in demons. Once they’re filed in the mythology folder there’s no reason to try to figure out what they might “really be.” The Warrens’ outlook, therefore, has become canonical among ghost hunters. They certainly have more credibility in that crowd than most Harvard Ph.D.s. It’s funny what can happen when you refuse to explore what the average person considers to be just as real as the physical world we all think we know so well.